Apr 07 2009

Marcus Hart explains how to self-publish and promote a book

This article is an interview with Marcus Hart, the author of The Oblivion Society. He originally self-published ObSoc but was later published professionally by Permuted Press.

SN: You promoted your book at Comic-Con and the LA Times Festival of Books.  How much did it cost?  Do you have any advice for authors looking to promote their work at such gatherings?

MH:  At the LA Times Festival of Books, a group of many authors pitched in to pay for a booth where we could all hang out and promote our books together. I won’t mention the name of this group, because my experience with them was not good. It turned out that the group’s organizers were overcharging the authors and keeping the profit. So what I paid wasn’t necessarily an accurate number, but it was in the area of $150-$200. An large group of friendly authors could probably do it cheaper.

I have not worked with the Greater Los Angeles Writers Society (glaws.org), but I know they do similar group buy-ins for authors at festivals and conventions. They’re worth a look for L.A.-area writers who want to do an event like this.

As for Comic-Con, that’s kind of a funny story. We promoted there for free, because we did it totally illegally.

A table in the Comic-Con dealers room is prohibitively expensive for most self-published writers, so in 2005 we launched a guerrilla promotion effort there for The Oblivion Society. We hired two models from Craigslist (who were crazy enough to work for Comic-Con admission and a free lunch), fitted them with homemade bat wings, and then hit the convention floor. Several friends were handing out postcards as we photographed convention goers with the girls (which could then be viewed on the website, driving traffic there). All of this is, of course, totally against the rules, so we had to stay one step ahead of the security guards all day long. One member of our party even got caught and thrown out of the convention center.

Today, four years later, I’d imagine Comic-Con security is better trained for this sort of thing, so you probably don’t want to try this stunt again… at Comic-Con. There are plenty of similar events where you might still mount a very successful guerrilla promotion effort. Just don’t get caught!

SN: If an author is considering POD, how much would you recommend budgeting for start-up costs like cover-art and editing? If he plans to seriously push his book, how much would you recommend allocating for promotional expenses?

MH: If you are POD publishing with Lulu (which I recommend), there are no start-up costs to speak of. You’ll need to buy a $100 distribution package, but that’s all Lulu will ask you for before they’ll put you on Amazon.

As far as editing and artwork go, I was very lucky to have good friends who specialize in those fields. Editing isn’t cheap. Editor extraordinaire Will DeRooy (willderooy.com) gave me a discount on his formidable skills, and even then, it was still around $800 for a book the length of The Oblivion Society.

Every piece of artwork I’ve ever needed has come from my best friend, Michael Greenholt (michaelgreenholt.com). His art style meshes very well with my writing style, and we’ve enjoyed a great synergy with our projects.

If you’re looking for cover art, I wouldn’t be shy about finding artists you like online and asking them if they would be interested in doing a commission for you. If you’re willing to give some promotional concessions (for example, Mike Greenholt’s name and website has been on everything upon which his ObSoc art has been reprinted), you might be able to get a discount. Especially if the artist likes your book.

Promotion will be your most expensive budgetary concern, by far. The cost of just the L.A. Times Festival of Books and Comic-Con alone (postcards, magnets, books, travel, etc.) was over $1,000.

The most cost-effective promotions I’ve done for The Oblivion Society are small science-fiction conventions. My friend and fellow author, Christopher Andrews (christopherandrews.com), have gone in together on the cost of a table at several conventions, which usually ends up only costing us about $150 each. Of course, if you can get yourself invited to speak at a convention, they might even give you a signing table for free.

SN: I first came into contact with your work when I saw the trailer for The Oblivion Society. Do you have any advice for authors that want to do book trailers? How much would you recommend budgeting for one?

MH: I think the book trailer is a great way to promote your book, especially if your book feels cinematic in tone. The only downside is that some people (mostly non-readers) will get excited about your book, and then disappointed when they find out it’s not a movie (or in my case, a cartoon).

My book trailer was put together by the folks at Permuted Press using paintings and sketches of the characters that Mike has done for me over the years. I can’t honestly say how much it would cost to make one, as this all happened pretty much outside of my hands.

SN: When you started self-publishing, were there any unexpected setbacks? How did you get around them?

MH: The biggest setback I hit was promotion. Promoting a book is hard, hard work. It’s harder than you imagine it will be. Also, to put it another way, it’s hard.

I don’t have an outgoing personality or a big ego. It’s the hardest thing in the world for me to walk up to a complete stranger and tell him or her how great my book is, but that’s exactly what you have to do. Over and over again.

When I first started, I had this delusion that if the book was good enough, it would speak for itself, and I could stay holed up in my cave and write the next one. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Constant and vigilant promotion is necessary if you want your book to get noticed.

I know people have said it before, but I’ll say it again: In a lot of ways, promoting your book is harder than writing it.

The way to get around this (short of drinking the serum that turns you from Julius Kelp into Buddy Love) is to hire someone else to do your promotion for you. Of course, this gets really expensive really fast, so it’s worth taking a stab at doing it yourself first. Heck, you might even make a new friend.

SN: How important do you think business skills are to the success of a POD author? (Let’s assume that the POD author in question defines success by how many copies he sells).

MH: Business skills are very important, especially if you’re working by yourself. You need to be able to work out a budget for your book and its promotion, and you need to be able to stick to it. You need to be able to keep track of what promotion is being done, who is getting copies for review, and what, if any, effect it is having. You need to keep track of how many books are being sold and make sure that all of your royalties are accounted for. There’s a lot of very non-writerly work to be done.

Business skills also include networking, and without networking with other authors, publishers, and the like, you are dead. It doesn’t matter how great your book is. Sad but true.

SN: In your FAQ, you say that “stores assume that if you’re publishing yourself, that means you suck.” Do you think that readers have the same preconception? If so, how would you recommend overcoming their doubts?

MH: I think everyone has their own level of book snobbery. People who read a lot of a certain genre tend to get voracious and read everything that they can in that genre, regardless of where it comes from. Those people are willing to chew through the terrible books in order to find the gems, and they do. In my experience, these are the people who will be your most vocal proponents (and critics).

Really mainstream readers probably won’t read a POD-published book unless somebody (be it Oprah or their best friend) tells them to. Even then, they still might not. These are the people who only read Harry Potter and Dan Brown, so breaking into their shell is a real battle
for anyone, POD published or not.

There is a book called POD People: Beating the Print-on-Demand Stigma by Jeremy Robinson that is supposed to be full of great information on this topic. I haven’t read it, though. That guy is a POD author, so his book probably sucks…

SN: Why did you decide to self-publish?

To be perfectly honest, it was mostly out of shyness. As I mentioned before, I’m not a great networker or mingler. I’m not a social butterfly and I’m not a salesman, especially when what I’m selling is me.

So after I had finished my book and it was ready to be published, I had two choices: try to sell myself to an agent, who would then help me sell myself to a publisher, and then try to sell myself to the public, or just publish the book myself, cut out two levels of exhausting social interaction, and go straight to awkwardly charming the public.

SN: How did you get the idea to write a comedic story about a nuclear apocalypse?

The truth is, I didn’t. Much like the nuclear war in The Oblivion Society, it was an accident.

In the beginning, the story was meant to be a screwball sci-fi comedy where, in the aftermath of a devastating nuclear war, three skateboard punks inadvertently become the rulers of Earth. They then sell it off to a race of aliens looking for “a fixer upper” planet.

As I wrote the first draft, the arrival of the aliens kept getting pushed deeper and deeper into the book as I realized that it wasn’t as interesting as the story of the skate punks.

Eventually I admitted to myself what story I was really writing and started again, getting rid of all of the alien elements. And the skateboard elements, for that matter. I don’t know anything about skateboards.

SN: After you completed the first draft of your final chapter, how long did you spend editing and rewriting before you decided that it was ready to publish?

It was still a month or two. Even though I try to work with a fairly rigid outline, ideas come along as you’re writing that are too good to ignore just because they don’t fit in. My process is to write the whole novel, putting in stuff that doesn’t make sense as I go, and then when I hit the end, go back and rewrite the beginning until it does make sense. I completely threw away the first two chapters and wrote them again after I knew how the book ended.

SN: How long had you been selling The Oblivion Society before Permuted Press contacted you about the paperback rights? Around how many copies had you sold?

It was about a year and a half between the releases of the first (POD) and second (Permuted Press) editions. I think I sold somewhere around 300 copies in that time. That doesn’t sound like much, but I wasn’t even getting reviews at that time. Pretty much every copy sold was through direct one-on-one promotion with real people. Like I said, it’s exhausting.

SN: When Permuted Press published ObSoc, did they do any editing beforehand?

Actually, quite the opposite. Permuted Press liked the book and wanted to reprint it as-is. I was the one who had to talk them into letting me revise it for the second edition. After a year of reader feedback, I had formed a pretty good picture of what needed fixing, and I fixed it.

We also gave it some great new cover art, as the old cover art never conveyed the message it was supposed to. (Vivian was supposed to look mildly annoyed at the mushroom cloud, like she was saying, “I am NOT cleaning that up.” But it always read that she was sobbing, which
isn’t all that funny.

[Editor's Note:  When we reviewed the book trailer for Oblivion Society, one of the things we noted was that "the only clear emotional image in the trailer is her sobbing on the cover as mushroom clouds loom in the background"

SN: If you were writing and self-publishing The Oblivion Society all over again, what (if anything) would you have done differently?

I would have published it as a straight POD book and not meddled with "self publishing." Most people don't know that there is a difference, but with POD, books are produced one at a time as they are ordered, and with self-publishing, a "small" quantity of books is printed all at one time.

I say "small" with quotes, because the smallest quantity a non-POD printer is going to want to deal with is probably around 500. That ends up being a big up-front cost and a lot of space in your garage that you have to slowly reclaim through signings and personal appearances. Even then, many of the people you'll meet at those events will have their own POD published copies that they bought on the Internet.

One of the stipulations of the Permuted Press contract for the second edition was that the first edition had to be retired from stores. To this day, I still have about 150 first editions in my garage that I don't know what to do with. If only schools were more open to the idea of taking donations of books featuring the F word and blow job jokes...
[end]

I’d like to thank Holliequ, Tom, R.B., and Whovian for their help on this interview. Thanks, guys!

22 responses so far

22 Responses to “Marcus Hart explains how to self-publish and promote a book”

  1. Jeremy Robinsonon 07 Apr 2009 at 9:39 am

    Well, I might be biased about my books, but I’m pretty sure Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s press, would disagree with your assesment of my writing. As would the 15,000 people who bought the POD editions of my books. My first hard cover from Thomas Dunne, Pulse, is coming out on May 26th (2009).

    As for POD People, it’s a little out dated now and is certainly not my opus, but it does give the details of how I sold more than 6k copies of my first POD title and landed an agent after becoming a B&N.com bestseller, all of which eventually led to to the deal with Thomas Dunne and my last two books published by Variance Publishing.

    Might want to research bold statements like that before making them. The all-seeing Google eye is watching. ;)

    – Jeremy Robinson

  2. B. Macon 07 Apr 2009 at 10:15 am

    Umm, Jeremy… I’m pretty sure that Marcus was being facetious when he said that your book probably sucked because it was self-published. He self-published his own book. He is recommending your book.

    In particular, I’d like to draw your attention to these four paragraphs.

    SN: In your FAQ, you say that “stores assume that if you’re publishing yourself, that means you suck.” Do you think that readers have the same preconception? If so, how would you recommend overcoming their doubts?

    MH: I think everyone has their own level of book snobbery. People who read a lot of a certain genre tend to get voracious and read everything that they can in that genre, regardless of where it comes from. Those people are willing to chew through the terrible books in order to find the gems, and they do. In my experience, these are the people who will be your most vocal proponents (and critics).

    Really mainstream readers probably won’t read a POD-published book unless somebody (be it Oprah or their best friend) tells them to. Even then, they still might not. These are the people who only read Harry Potter and Dan Brown, so breaking into their shell is a real battle for anyone, POD published or not.

    There is a book called POD People: Beating the Print-on-Demand Stigma by Jeremy Robinson that is supposed to be full of great information on this topic. I haven’t read it, though. That guy is a POD author, so his book probably sucks…

    Umm, in context, I think it’s quite clear that he’s recommending your book as a resource for how to beat the POD stigma.

    –B. Mac

  3. Jeremy Robinsonon 07 Apr 2009 at 11:37 am

    Ahaaa. You’re right. Context really is everything. :)

    Had the quote forwarded to me by someone else who read it out of context as well. Bah!

    The all-seeing eye has tunnel vision. Carry on, then!

    – Jeremy

  4. scribblaron 07 Apr 2009 at 11:38 am

    Come on, Jeremy. He was obviously being sarcastic. You might have sold a lot of copies but you just lost a sell – I read what he said and thought I’d check your book out. Then I read what you said and decided you’re an ***. Sorry, mate.

  5. scribblaron 07 Apr 2009 at 11:40 am

    Okay, now I feel like an ass, too – I opened this thread when there was only one reply. After I posted there was several…

    Yeah, so context is important…

    I’m off to see how much POD People costs…

    :)

  6. Guyon 07 Apr 2009 at 11:41 am

    And right here in front of Google’s all-seeing eye we have Jeremy Robinson proving himself to be a tool. Nice job, Mr. Robinson!

  7. B. Macon 07 Apr 2009 at 11:44 am

    Hello, Guy. He acknowledged he had taken it out of context– admittedly, only a minute or two before you posted, so you might not have had a chance to read his update before posting. Please let it go. I’m already embroiled in too many geeky vendettas to take on another right now. ;-)

  8. Jeremy Robinsonon 07 Apr 2009 at 12:34 pm

    Thanks, B. Mac. I’m tool enough to apologize for taking it out of context. :) Sorry, Marcus! My bad.

    – Jeremy

  9. B. Macon 07 Apr 2009 at 1:23 pm

    It happens. Last year, I spent a week bitching back and forth with a few other comic book nerds. Looking back, I wish I had used that time to do something useful instead.

  10. scribblaron 07 Apr 2009 at 1:38 pm

    Yeah, and then there was that whole thing about the book trailer….

    That was just weird.

    So, is POD better than doing a print-run and having, say, 5000 copies in your garage?

    POD is less expensive up-front but more expensive per title, meaning you will earn less. But it takes up less space. Vice versa for a print-run.

  11. Jeremy Robinsonon 07 Apr 2009 at 5:06 pm

    Scribblar,

    You don’t necessarily make less money. It depends on which service you use. If you set up your own small press (like I did) using Lightning Source or self-pub through Amazon’s CreateSpace (I’ve been told) you can sell a $14.99 trade paper, give a 40% discount (that’s about as low as you can go and get away with it) and make a nice $4 – $5 per book sold, depending on how many pages the book is. And you don’t have to worry about shipping, warehousing or distribution. You also save tons of time not having to physically do those chores…and that’s time better spent on marketing. What you do need to do is publish a professional book. If your book doesn’t look and read like one from big publisher, then it won’t sell, no matter what you do.

    – Jeremy

  12. scribblaron 07 Apr 2009 at 5:42 pm

    Sorry, I’m British – I don’t deal in dollars. :)

    Is $14.99 what you would expect to pay for a book from a big publishers in a brick and mortar book store?

    I know what you mean about looking professional. I refuse to buy books that have obviously CGI cover pictures as they look cheap and tacky (in my opinion) and it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the book.

    Sadly, most PODs tend to have CGI covers.

    And yet, a book doesn’t need a complicated cover to be succesful. The British versions of the Dresden Files have really simple but attractive covers.

    Sorry, that was a tangent there.

  13. Jeremy Robinsonon 07 Apr 2009 at 7:28 pm

    Yes, $14.99 is the standard price for a trade paper here in the US. They can go as high as $18.99, though that is rare.

    FYI, Lightning Source pricing is a little more pricey in the UK, but still pretty good.

    If you ever need help with a cover, I can help: http://jeremyrobinsononline.com/creative/covers-designed-by-jeremy-robinson.html

    – Jeremy

  14. B. Macon 07 Apr 2009 at 8:09 pm

    I could be mistaken, but I think the price for a paperback is often noticeably lower than $15. For example, on Amazon, a new copy of Twilight debuted at $11 and has since dropped to $6. Victory of Eagles debuted at $8. Captain Freedom debuted at $12 last month. SIWBI debuted at $15 and is now at $10. Also, all of these books are eligible for free shipping if you buy $25 worth of goods. By my rough count, $15 + shipping is about 20-40% more expensive than your competition.

  15. ikarus619xon 07 Apr 2009 at 8:46 pm

    What about digital publishing? I heard Amazon lets people sell e-books for their Kindle doo-dad. Is there a comic equivalent? I’m a high schooler trying to be a comic writer, so I’m on a budget.

  16. B. Macon 08 Apr 2009 at 5:57 am

    Yeah, you can self-publish comic books digitally. There are a few sites that can help you sell digital comics online. In addition, you’ll probably want to set up a website for yourself. If you have technical expertise, hopefully you can handle the sales of your comic through your website. (I can offer more advice on that if you’d be interested).

    However, putting the art together might be a problem for someone with a limited budget. I don’t know what your artistic plans look like, but unless you’re a professional-grade artist or know one that’s willing to work for free, you will probably need to hire a freelancer. That costs at least $50 per page, and probably significantly more. For the first issue, the freelancer would probably cost more than a thousand dollars.

    It would actually be cheaper to prepare a submission for a professional publisher. Along with the script, most publishers would like to see 5 pages of quality art and preferably a cover. You could do that for somewhere between $300-500.

    If you don’t have access to a quality artist, I’d recommend sending a script without art to one of the professional publishers that will accept naked scripts. Dark Horse is the only one that comes to mind, but there are probably others.

    Would you like a review forum? We’ve worked with a few prospective comic book writers.

  17. Tomon 08 Apr 2009 at 7:07 am

    Semi-off-topic, but have any of you heard of this ‘motion comics’ thing? I can’t really explain it well, but this link can:

    http://newteevee.com/2008/07/30/the-rise-of-motion-comics-online/

  18. B. Macon 08 Apr 2009 at 7:15 am

    I’ve heard of them. However, it’s really a niche market. People don’t know what they are and there aren’t many people clamoring for them. I don’t know how expensive the voice actors and music would be, but I suspect you could get them done respectably for $500-1000. Still, it’s not nearly as expensive as actual animation.

    I’ll ask Harry Partridge how much it would cost me to do something like Saturday Morning Watchmen, but my guess is that a solid 90-second cartoon clip costs somewhere between $4000 and $6000. There’s so much art involved.

  19. Tomon 08 Apr 2009 at 7:33 am

    Ha, that Saturday Morning Watchmen never fails to crack me up!

  20. B. Macon 08 Apr 2009 at 9:20 am

    That was fast. I asked Harry for a price quote on a two-minute cartoon. He says:

    A two-minute cartoon would be a lot of work, considering the Watchmen has about 70 seconds of work. Watchmen took me two months or so labour, pulling 18 hour days by the end of it. I would charge quite a lot, about £5,000. [B. MAC adds: that's $7500 at current conversion rates]

  21. ikarus619xon 08 Apr 2009 at 9:49 pm

    Wow, thanks! I don’t need a forum just yet. $50 a page is insane. My artist friend and I are co-creating this, so that’s not an issue. We plan on it being a free webcomic, but charging for PDFs and merchandise.

  22. Marcus Alexander Harton 21 Apr 2009 at 11:24 pm

    I’m way late to this party, and everyone has already worked it out, but for the record, yes, it was meant as a joke when I said that “POD People” probably sucked.

    Also, for the record, I do own a copy of “POD People” that I have yet to read, which suggests that *I* suck.

    Carry on. :-)

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